There are some obvious reasons for the steady decline of American effectiveness in dealing with domestic economic woes as well as international affairs. Most notable is the adherence to ideologies that generate policies with a proven track record of failure. Despite this demonstrated failure, the United States continues to pursue the same policies, believing the results will be different. This is sometimes described as insanity. However, a closer examination indicates that there are powerful interests that benefit from this practice. The net result is both a diminished democracy and a nation falling far short of its potential for global leadership.
On the domestic front, neoliberal political economic ideology has prevailed since the 1980s. This involves a belief in the goodness of the market and the badness of government; the preference for private sector solutions over public sector responsibility. It is based on the assumption that any policy that benefits private corporate interests will inevitably produce public social good. Privatization, deregulation, low taxes on the wealthy and corporations, no unions, and no increased minimum wage are just some of the most notable policy preferences. The fact that this has been the trend for thirty years, and has produced record income and wealth inequality and a domestic economy that is grossly incapable of meeting the socio-economic needs of the population, not to mention contributing to the continuing economic crisis, seems to be an irrelevant indicator of its ineffectiveness.
Almost all political and public officials -- Democrat and Republican -- still subscribe to the basic tenets of neoliberalism. The Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz describes this phenomenon as “cognitive capture”. In addition to the direct capture of government by moneyed interests through financial contributions, there is the more subtle and insidious “cognitive” forms involving the taken for granted assumption that economic policy – particularly at the state and local levels – involves reducing the costs and providing tax and financial incentives to the private sector. This has become the singular guiding principle of public policy, often disguised behind the intuitively appealing but highly asymmetrical “public-private partnership”. Once established, this principle precludes any need for public participation in economic policy decisions, since it has taken on the status of a self-evident truth. It is this mindset and worldview that ensures policies will serve, first and foremost, the economic interests of the few rather than the socio-economic needs of the many. In the process, democracy is short-circuited.
On the foreign-military policy front (hyphenated because the two have become indistinguishable) there is an equally impressive record of failure; most recently in Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps, shortly, with ISIS. The failure stems from what Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel, labels the long-standing “Washington rules”. The first rule, what he calls the American Credo, assumes that the United States is responsible for leading, saving, liberating, and ultimately transforming the world. Others have described this as “imperial hubris”. The second rule is that this mission will be accomplished primarily through military rather than diplomatic means, and at a scale and scope that far exceeds national security requirements. It rests, according to Bacevich, on “the sacred trinity: an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.” This approach has not only exacted a huge human and financial toll, it has also failed to foster a global sense of security nor has it improved our global reputation. A Gallop/Win poll conducted in 2014 of 66,000 people in 68 countries found that the United States was regarded as the “greatest threat to world peace” by a plurality of respondents (with 24%, well ahead of second place Pakistan with 8%).
But as with the neoliberal orthodoxy, there is no discussion about an alternative foreign-policy paradigm in the face of accumulated failures. While the publicly proclaimed desired goals of shared prosperity and global peace are never realized, there is little critical scrutiny of the seemingly bankrupt means employed to achieve these worthy objectives. This is because, in both arenas, there are powerful interests that benefit from the existing arrangements independent of their efficacy. The neoliberal model domestically has produced a systematic transfer of income and wealth from the many to the few. The Washington rules globally, and the associated permanent “war on terrorism”, has enriched the military/national-security industrial complex.
If one hopes to achieve some redress through our electoral system, they are likely to be disappointed. Despite all the talk about political polarization, on the two cornerstones of American identity – economic growth and global superiority – the party duopoly is largely united in support of policy prescriptions that have a consistent record of failure. The familiar mantra of defenders of the status quo – “there is no alternative” (aka TINA) – has never rang so true.
There was a time when the United States was regarded as a pragmatic, rather than ideological, society. This would mean that economic and foreign policies would be based on practical results and demonstrated success. This has been replaced by blind faith in, and ideological attachment to, neoliberal market-based and neoconservative military solutions, reinforced by the material interests that benefit disproportionately from their continuation. Call it calculated insanity.